Greek History

The Background: Aegean Civilization, 2000-1200 B.C.

Greek civilization was unique in so many ways that a student of history

might infer that it developed free from outside influences, springing fullblown from the mountains and plains of this small land.

The Greek achievement, however, was preceded by an advanced civilization located on the lands surrounding the Aegean Sea.

This Aegean civilization, which came into full flower about 2000 B.C. and collapsed suddenly following 1200 B.C., developed through two major periods.

Minoan And Mycenaean Phases

The first and longer phase of Aegean civilization, which ended about 1450 B.C., is called Minoan after the legendary Cretan King Minos.

Crete was the center of Minoan civilization, which spread to the Aegean Islands, the coast of Asia Minor, and mainland Greece.

The last period of Aegean civilization, the two and one-half centuries following 1450 B.C. when the center of Aegean political power and culture lay on the Greek mainland, is called Mycenaean after its most important site at Mycenae.

The Minoans

The narrow, 160-mile-long island of Crete was a stepping stone between Europe, Asia, and Africa. Stimulated by immigrants from Asia Minor and by contacts with Mesopotamia and Egypt, a brilliant civilization emerged here by 2000 B.C.

Minoan prosperity was based on large-scale trade that ranged from Sicily, Greece, and Asia Minor to Syria and Egypt.


The Minoans employed the first ships capable of long voyages over the open sea. Chief exports were olive oil, wine, metalware, and magnificent pottery.


This trade was the monopoly of an efficient bureaucratic government under a powerful ruler whose administrative records were written on clay tablets, first in a form of picture writing and later in a syllabic script known as Linear A.


As neither script has been deciphered, our knowledge of Minoan civilization is scanty and imprecise; most of it is derived from the material remains uncovered by archaeologists.


Between 1900 and 1905 Evans unearthed the ruins of a great palace at Knossos, the dominant city in Crete after 1700 B.C.

Rising at least three stories high and sprawling over nearly six acres, this "Palace of Minos," built of brick and limestone and employing unusual downward-tapering columns of wood, was a maze of royal apartments, storerooms, corridors, open courtyards, and broad stairways.

Furnished with running water, the palace had a sanitation system that surpassed anything constructed in Europe until Roman times. Walls were painted with elaborate frescoes in which the Minoans appear as a happy, peaceful people with a pronounced liking for dancing, festivals, and athletic contests.

Women are shown enjoying a freedom and dignity unknown elsewhere in the ancient Near East or classical Greece.

They are not secluded in the home but are seen sitting with men and taking an equal part in public festivities - even as toreadors in a form of bull fighting. Their dresses are very elaborate, with gay patterns and colors, pleats, puffed sleeves, and flounces.

Bodices are open in front to the waist, and hair is elaborately fashioned with ringlets over the forehead and about the ears.

The glory of Minoan culture was its art, spontaneous and full of rhythmic motion. Art was an essential part of everyday life and not, as in the ancient Near East, an adjunct to religion and the state.

What little is known of Minoan religion also contrasts sharply with conditions in the Near East: there were no great temples, powerful priesthoods, or large cult statues of the gods.

The principal deity was the Mother Goddess; her importance reflected the important position held by women in Cretan society.

A number of recovered statuettes show her dressed like a fashionable Cretan woman with flounced skirts, a tightly laced, lowcut bodice, and an elaborate coiffure. She was probably the prototype of such later Greek goddesses as Athena, Demeter, and Aphrodite.

The Mycenaeans

About 2000 B.C. or shortly thereafter, the first Indo-European Greek tribes, collectively called Achaeans, entered Greece, where they absorbed the earlier settlers and ruled from strongly fortified citadels at Mycenae, Pylos, Athens, and other sites.

By 1600 B.C. the Achaeans - or Mycenaeans, as they are usually called - had adopted much of the advances culture of the Minoans.

They remained warlike, however, and plied the seas as raiders as well as traders. Mycenaean women adopted Cretan fashions and added a variety of sumptuous jewelry from bracelets to earrings.

Some of the wealth accumulated by the kings of Mycenae - the greatest single hoard of gold, silver, and ivory objects found anywhere before the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb - was unearthed in 1876 by Heinrich Schliemann, fresh from his even more sensational discoveries at Troy.

The expansive force of Mycenaean civilization led to the planting of colonies in the eastern Mediterranean (Hittite sources refer to Achaeans in Asia Minor) and to the conquest of Knossos about 1450 B.C.

The latter event was made possible by the destruction of the labyrinthian palace at Knossos by fire - the aftereffect, it is now conjectured, of a great tidal wave caused by the eruption of the small volcanic island of Thera (Santorini) eighty miles north of Crete.

The palace at Knossos was rebuilt by the Mycenaeans (to be destroyed finally about 1380 B.C. by earthquake and fire), and the center of Aegean civilization shifted to the Greek mainland.

The Mycenaean centers were fortified palaces and administrative centers and not, as in Crete, true cities.

The bulk of the population lived in scattered villages where they worked either communal land or land held by nobles or kings.

The nobles were under the close control of the kings, whose administrative records were kept daily by a large number of scribes.

Prominent in these records are details of the disbursement of grain and wine as wages and the collection of taxes in kind.

The most important item of income was olive oil, the major article in the wide-ranging Mycenaean trade, which was operated as a royal monopoly.

Perhaps it was their role as merchantmonopolists that led the Achaean kings about 1250 B.C. to launch the famous expedition against Troy in order to eliminate a powerful commercial rival.

Troy, Site Of Homer's Iliad

The city of Troy occupied a strategic position on the Hellespont (the strait from the Aegean to the Black seas now known as the Dardanelles).


Thus Troy could command both sea traffic through the straits and land caravans going between Asia and Europe.


For many years scholars thought this city existed only in the epic poems of Homer. Henrich Schliemann (1822-1890), a German romantic dreamer and amateur archaeologist, believed otherwise.


As a boy, he had read Homer's Iliad, and thereafter he remained firmly

convinced that Troy had actually existed.

At the age of forty-eight, having amassed a fortune in the California gold rush and in world-wide trade, Schliemann retired from business to put his persistent dream of ancient Troy to the test.

In 1870 Schliemann began excavations at the legendary site of Troy, where he unearthed nine buried cities, built one on top of another. He discovered a treasure of golden earrings, hairpins, and bracelets in the second city (Troy II), which led him to believe that this was the city of Homer's epics.

Excavations in the 1930s, however, showed that Troy II had been destroyed about 2200 B.C., far too early to have been the scene of the Trojan War, and that Troy VIIa, clearly destroyed by human violence about 1250 B.C., was probably the one made famous by Homer.

Neither the view that Troy was the victim of commercial rivalry nor the other widely held theory that it was destroyed by Achaean pirates seeking booty corresponds to Homer's view that the Trojan War was caused by the abduction of Helen, queen of Sparta, by the Trojan prince Paris.


Led by Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, the wrathful Achaeans besieged Troy for ten long years. Homer's Iliad deals only with a few weeks during the tenth year of the siege.

The Fall Of Mycenaean Civilization

About 1200 B.C. a new wave of Indo-Europeans, the Dorian Greeks, materially aided by weapons made of iron instead of bronze, invaded Greece.

First of the Mycenaean strongholds to fall was Pylos, whose Linear B archives contain numerous references to hastily undertaken preparations to repel the invaders.

We find orders directing women and children to places of safety; instructions to armorers, "rowers," and food suppliers; and a report entitled "How the watchers are guarding the coastal regions." ^2

The preparations were in vain, however. Pylos was sacked and burned, and the destruction of the other major Mycenaean citadels soon followed. Mycenaean refugees found a haven at Athens and in Ionia on the western coast of Asia Minor.

[Footnote 2: See Leonard R. Palmer, Mycenaeans and Minoans: Aegean Prehistory in the Light of the Linear B Tablets (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), ch. 5, "The Last Days of Pylos."]